Water levels along the River Rhine are approaching the
record low set in 2003, which has put pressure on the logistics
sector and left companies assessing alternative ways to
transport raw materials because they need more barges than are
Low water levels on the river and its associated canal
system are an annual problem for the many companies that rely
on the Rhine as a trade route, but this year the
warmer-than-usual European summer and lack of rainfall have
caused water levels to fall more than is normal. This means
that barges cannot be fully loaded so more barges are needed
for the same volume of cargo.
At 1,200km long, the Rhine is one of the longest rivers in
Europe. It opens into the North Sea at The Netherlands, having
flowed through Germany, France and Switzerland.
The Rhine and its canals are a major trade network for
German companies and also link to the River Main, which
connects to Eastern Europe via the River Danube.
According to website Interrijn.com, the water levels at the
time of publication were as low as 46cm at Kaub, which lies
between Koblenz and Mainz in central Germany. This is often a
bottleneck when water levels drop because barges are not able
to pass this point in the river.
The Rhine is typically navigable to 1.9-2 meters depth for
the largest ships.
The current record lows on the Rhine have not been seen
since 2003, and they mean that barges are being loaded with as
little as 30% of total capacity so they can still navigate the
shallow waterways, according to a Germany-based fluorspar
The all-time low was 35cm in 2003.
More barges needed
Due to the low capacity utilization of the barges, there is
a multiplier on the number of barges needed to transport the
same volume of goods. This makes barge availability a problem
and places a premium on the logistics service.
"Last week there was almost no traffic on the Rhine. We now
have increased freight costs because we cannot take [only] a
few thousand tonnes of fluorspar at a time. The last shipment
was less than 1,000 tonnes," the fluorspar consumer said.
The company has been forced to stockpile fluorspar at
Rotterdam in The Netherlands, and this will be shipped down the
Rhine once water levels return to normal.
This year the water has been "particularly low for more than
two months, and a lot of companies cannot get their goods
shipped in at all," a spokeswoman for Dutch
shippers’ organization Evofenedex told
"The costs are so high that it is not financially viable.
Companies are trying to get some of their goods on rail
[transport] and there is a strain on that capacity, as well as
on road transport," she added.
Evofenedex, which represents the trade interests of an
estimated 70% of all goods trade by Netherlands-based
companies, has assessed the total cost of arranging other forms
of transport at an additional €380-400 million ($433-456
million) over the past two months.
For low-cost, high-volume commodities such as coal, building
materials and animal feed, this means that the additional
transport costs are greater than the value of the goods, the
Companies have declared force majeure on some
product lines as a result of this issue. German speciality
chemicals producer Evonik, for example, has issued a warning on
performance intermediates – products based on crude
oil such as anti-knocking agents.
The company has several sites on the Rhine – one
each at Marl, Worms and Rheinfelden and two near Cologne.
Media reports have said that chemicals major Solvay has not
received a delivery of raw materials by barge since October 16,
and the world’s largest chemical producer, BASF,
has declared force majeure on its nylon products.
BASF said in an email to Fastmarkets that there was
currently no force majeure regarding nylon
products as a result of low water levels in the Rhine. Solvay
was contacted for further comment but did respond.
Barge operators were also affected financially because their
clients must pay for a fully crewed ship even when it is not
fully laden, raising the cost-per-tonne of every cargo.
"We are losing more than half of our capacity, and this is
reflected in the price of a ship. The crew is still earning the
same amount of money and therefore the euro-per-tonne rate is
going up," Ralf Jina, a sales representative for inland
navigation company DDSG Holding, said.
There were surcharges of 60% in addition to the freight
rate, which might be typically be €10 ($11) per tonne, he
DDSG Holding is headquartered in Vienna, Austria, and is one
of the largest inland waterway logistics companies in Europe,
operating a fleet of 433 units, according to its website.
The company’s largest barges can carry as much
as 20,500 tonnes when fully loaded although others take as
little as 3,100 tonnes.
Effects on costs
Several companies that buy raw materials told Fastmarkets
that the total effect on costs arising from the restricted
waterway movements would not become apparent until their
financial results were published.
The Germany-based fluorspar consumer has looked into the
possibility of moving raw materials by road although it
admitted that this was a precautionary measure and was not
But because this situation is affecting businesses across
Germany and into Eastern Europe, it has also placed a premium
on the supply of road and rail transport.
"For one vessel carrying 300 containers [on the water], you
need 300 trucks. This leaves no alternative for the steel
industry in Duisburg, which will not change from inland vessels
to trucks for the simple reason that the cargo is not meant to
be transported by truck," a spokesman for the Port of Amsterdam
Some ships were being loaded with as little as 20% of
capacity, he added.
In the Netherlands, there is also a shortage of qualified
truck drivers, according to the spokeswoman from Evofenedex. "A
lot of companies are searching for skilled people to fill job
openings," she said.
Another factor to be considered is that transporting
material by alternative methods may mean that deliveries do not
arrive when they are needed.
Weather to stay dry
According to the BBC Weather service, there is only one day
in the next 14 when rain can be expected to fall in Koblenz
– one of the principal cities along the Rhine, just
north of the Kaub chokepoint.
Website Elwis.de, operated by the German Ministry of
Transport & Digital Infrastructure, has predicted that the
all-time low water depth of 35cm will be matched by the evening
of Friday November 9.
If there is no rainfall in the coming months, the Rhine and
its canals will be more susceptible to freezing when the
weather turns cold, which could prolong the logistics problems
well into the winter.
This article was amended on November 8 to include BASF's
comments on its nylon products.